Babies Use Language To ‘Decode’ Intentions
November 13, 2012

Babies Use Language To Learn and Decode Adult Intentions

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

An infant's ability to understand the intentions of others is surprising wrapped up in language according to a new study from Northwestern University's Department of Psychology.

An experimenter modeled an unusual behavior with a group of babies watching intently — she turned a light on with her forehead. What the researcher wanted to know was how the babies would interpret this behavior — as an intentional act to emulate, or simply a fluke? To understand, the experimenter gave the 14-month-old children an opportunity to play with the light themselves.

The study, recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology, used two experiments to show that the infants' tendency to imitate the behavior was heavily influenced by introducing a new word for the impending novel event. The children were more likely to imitate the modeled behavior, however unconventional, if the behavior had first been named.

The infants imitated the experimenter when she announced her unusual behavior with the statement "I'm going to blick the light." When she did not name the event, the infants did not imitate the behavior, revealing that infants as young as 14 months of age coordinate their insights about behavior with their intuitions about language in the service of deciding which behaviors are the correct ones to imitate.

"This work shows, for the first time, that even for infants who have only just begun to 'crack the language code,' language promotes culturally-shared knowledge and actions — naturally, generatively and apparently effortlessly," said Sandra R. Waxman, the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology at Northwestern.

"This is the first demonstration of how infants' keen observational skills, when augmented by human language, heighten their acuity for 'reading' the underlying intentions of their 'tutors' (adults) and foster infants' imitation of adults' actions."

Apparently, infants do not generally imitate "strange" actions in the absence language and its power to convey meaning, Waxman said. This appears to hold true even when children do not yet have the linguistic abilities to unlock the specific meaning of words and phrases.

"This means that human language provides infants with a powerful key: it unlocks for them a broader world of social intentions," Waxman said. "We know that language, and especially the shared meaning within a linguistic community, is one of the most powerful conduits of the cultural knowledge that we humans transmit across generations."